Review of Opening Night Shorts at CTFF: Black Doll and Queen of Hearts
The two short films opening CaribbeanTales’ 2018 International Film Festival, are each well worth watching on their own. Black Doll, by Vincentian filmmaker Akley Olton, and Queen of Hearts, by Toronto-based filmmakers Kyisha Williams and Lindsey Addawoo each manage to take tropes that are part of collective cultural consciousness and bring completely unique angles to the conversations. Black Doll is an intimate picture of a young girl’s relationship with her dolls and her hair, touching on a range of issues including femininity, race, and self-presentation. While Black Doll ventures into territory which could easily become trite or stereotypical, it aptly avoids both pitfalls, instead bringing the audience a truly moving piece with intrigue, suspense, and illumination in it’s short four minutes. Queen of Hearts twists the well-known, and oft-explored, myth of the Queen of Hearts, as addressed most famously by C.S. Lewis in his tale of young Alice, into a tale that is both completely new and riveting, and strikingly familiar.
Both films are, as CTFF has neatly named their Open Night, “trailblazing”. Each brings complex, believable and strong black female leads vividly to life. Black womanhood is boldly front and center. Each story breaks ground in important ways, pulling you deep into tales of the soul and heart. In each story, we are able to watch as the powerful young filmmaker’s deeply personal characters seek to find themselves and their truths in worlds which, in both cases, aren’t fully conducive to their needs. Each lead character, actively pushing back against other’s expectations of them, by any means necessary, determine to be themselves. The imagery in each film is powerful and both unique and in conversation with a body of work that spans across cinema and genre.
Black Doll can be described as strict realism told through a surrealist lens. With an art-house feel to the whole piece, it appears to be shot on authentic film. It fits itself neatly into the steadily growing body of visual work which creates space for black women and girls to see themselves represented in deep and meaningful ways. The eyes of the young filmmaker, himself not a girl, are kind and deeply personal. This is given extra weight in the credits when the audience learns that both the actresses in the film share his family name. The love with which this story is told, and the depth of the understanding that is given to the young protagonist’s story, shows a deep bond between filmmaker and his subjects. The film gets inside the head of the lead, but also, inside a broader consciousness around the ways in which black girls and women are often pigeonholed. The film does an excellent job portraying the threat to self-confidence that is held in commercials, in the casual comments of adults, and in the blue-eyed, straight-haired presence of white dolls, for black girls. I won’t tell you what happens in the film, which somehow leaves a much longer and more resonant message than one would guess in just four minutes, but it is enough to say that the young protagonist learns to take action into her own hands and decide who, and what gets to influence her. It is sure to leave audiences with a feeling of warmth and provides space for continued self-reflection.
On the other hand, Queen of Hearts can be described as deeply disconcerting. So many themes and so much content is squeezed into its short-feeling 15 minutes, that the audience is left reeling. Visuals of Victorian England mingle with South African imagery, which seems less specifically time-bound. The film blends elements of Afro-futurism with magical realism with heavy colonial under and overtones. At times the visual imagery mirrors something that might have come out of a Steve McQueen movie, and others where it feels more like a British period romance, all interwoven with a powerful visual centering of Afro-centric spirituality and womanhood. While it does feel like a period piece, it is set in a period of time that has never been. The stories and one must say “stories” and not “story” when talking about this visual cornucopia, that are woven together to create Queen of Hearts, at times seems disparate and yet come together in a vibrant conversation. The narrative follows a young, beautiful, Queen with mysterious powers, on a journey that all seems to take place in the space of a day, yet it also travels through her own recent history. Despite being described as “omnipotent”, she makes choices throughout the piece which demonstrate that the pressures on her, and her own internal battle between creation and destruction, are enough to lead her from her true path. The cinematography and performances by the cast are stunning, but I am left, at the end of a harrowing journey of love, lust, death, and betrayal, wanting to know more about this world that the filmmakers have created. It feels like a place I want to explore for, at the very least, a feature film. Though somehow incomplete, the film is definitely worth a watch and will leave you thinking, wondering, and hungry for these filmmakers to make more work.
Though supremely different, these two films work beautifully in conversation. They are indeed trailblazing films, each, in their own way, exploring the conflicting demands made on black female bodies, and showing the ways in which our young heroines utilize their own power to create space for themselves. We, the audience, are presented with well-rounded, deep and fascinating black female leads whose screen presence is nothing short of eloquent.